On 11 April 2014 I presented a paper at ‘Couture, Fashion and Consumption: Britain/France, 1947-1957’ held at Paris’ Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent (CNRS). This was the latest study day in the ongoing cross-cultural collaboration between dress history researchers from the IHTP and the University of Brighton. The following extract is the introduction to my paper, entitled, “Bravo la confection française! Researching French Ready-to-wear, 1947-1957: Industry, Modernity, and the Image of Women.”
In the 1 October 1956 issue of Elle, fashion editor Claude Brouet wrote: “Bravo la confection française! The bet is won. Won by the young industrialists of ‘Prêt à Porter’ who rescued French confection from its routine.” The accompanying photograph presented a model who wore a gray-brown wool coat by Albert Lempereur, an important proponent of ready-to-wear and then president of its trade organisation, the Fédération Française des Industries du Vêtement Féminin. The model followed the speed and direction of modernity, evoked by blurred horizontal lines that represented the frenzied mass-populated city of Paris. With her legs cropped out of the photo frame, the reader could not tell if she was caught in mid-step, moving with the times, or caught off-guard, slowing down in fear. The image captured well the electric push to modernise both industry and city and presented fashion that would parallel it. However, in contrasting sharp focus, the model seemed to exist outside of modern time. Rather than resist its thrust, uncertain, she questioned the move forward. Her stance could be seen to reflect France’s contradictory reception of its abrupt post-war modernisation, which, as Kristin Ross noted, was “experienced for the most part as highly destructive, obliterating a well-developed artisanal culture.” Prêt-à-porter, a product of the industry that perturbed mainstream notions of French artisanal production, was directly implicated in the country’s reconstruction. Articles in the fashion press, such as this one, which insisted on the success of French confection, thus sought to combat those views against modernity, but simultaneously laid bare a host of contradictions through their visual hesitancy and contrivance.
The French ready-made clothing industry during the Fourth Republic developed against the backdrop of heightened modernisation in terms of industrialisation, women’s lives, and France’s physical landscape, characterised by large-scale urbanisation. Images in the fashion press used ‘blurred’ photographic techniques, such as these, to depict the changing city that, from the 1950s was characterised by a new energy after its occupation during the war. The growth of mass motorised transport from the late 1950s, largely out of sight during the war and in the years following it, was a tangible reminder of urbanity. Such photographs “that achieve a truly dynamic movement,” as Christine Moneera Laennec has argued in relation to 1930s fashion photography, “work in such a way as to evoke various mechanized processes, not the least of which was the mass production that by this time had become central to the fashion industry.” Clothing and women were conflated with the automobile, the period symbol for urban, speedy modernity and the consumer object that most clearly referenced industrialised assembly-line production; which the repetitive imagery of models visualised. Certainly, the magazine’s distinctive use of highly saturated colour photography had as much to do with Roland Barthes’ characterisation of Elle as “a real mythological treasure” as the subjects it portrayed so that dressed bodies became shiny, streamlined, “magical” goods.
Women in this decade were also objectified through their clothing, with, according to Rebecca Arnold, “focus placed on a hard body created by corsetry and shiny dress fabrics that suggested a metallic finish and touch.” A dress sold at the fashionable boutique, Claude Mérel, with its crisp synthetic material veiled under a printed pattern of flowers, intimated painterly, handcrafted creation. Similarly, the boutique’s label hid any trace of a manufacturer. The dress implied a lavish, historic femininity with its voluminous skirt and large collar, which, in contrast, recalled men’s suits and workwear. Freedom of movement to work however, was repressed and contained through the dress’s construction: besides a small zipper at its side waist, the garment had no opening and included a belt for the body’s further containment. Magazines’ new construction of fashion and femininity, as seen above, negotiated components of industrial modernity and disseminated them in relation to prêt-à-porter and the image of women. Yet, as suggested by the Claude Mérel dress, postwar femininity was a site of contradiction, comprising a mixture of identities. This paper asks how the history of postwar French ready-to-wear can shed light on several contradictory narratives and, therefore, the transitional, dual nature of the 1950s, a period that encompassed limitations and possibility, modernity and tradition, flux and stasis.
Arnold, R. (2013) “Wifedressing: designing femininity in 1950s American fashion,” in Adamson, G. and Kelley, V. eds., Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects, Manchester: Manchester University, p. 127.
Barthes, R. (2009 ) Mythologies, London: Vintage Books, pp. 89, 101-103.
Laennec, C. M. (1997) “‘The Assembly-Line Love Goddess’: Women and the Machine Aesthetic in Fashion Photography, 1918-1940,” in Wilson, D. S. and Laennec, C. M., eds., Bodily Discursions: Genders, Representations, Technologies, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York, p. 89.
Ross, K. (1995) Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, p. 22.